March 17, 2010

Michael Wilbon, of the DC Post, told us what he thought about the tourney.
“Thursday and Friday can’t get here fast enough because the NCAA tournament is wide, wide open. If we’ve learned anything over these first two weeks of March, it’s that not all that much separates the best from the rest.
Hardly anything separated Mississippi State, which didn’t even make the tournament field, from No. 1 seed Kentucky in the SEC championship game Sunday.
Hardly anything separated Illinois, which didn’t make it either, from No. 2 seed Ohio State in the Big Ten semifinals Saturday.
And hardly anything is going to separate a No. 4 seed such as Purdue from a No. 13 seed such as Siena. In fact, the four No. 4 seeds in this tournament,
which are in the top 16 teams if we rank all 65 in the field, are hard to distinguish from the No. 13 seeds they’re supposed to defeat handily.
You think Gary Williams and Maryland aren’t sweating the University of Houston and Aubrey Coleman? They are and should be.
And it’s like that in all four regions, which is why this could be the most exciting tournament in years. All four No. 1 seeds advancing to the Final Four two years ago was a snoozer to me; it spoke to a certain top-heaviness in college basketball. Hey, that’s what professional basketball is supposed to be, not the NCAA tournament.
The selection of Kansas, Kentucky, Duke and Syracuse as the No. 1 seeds is easy to defend.
Had Duke lost to Georgia Tech, West Virginia would have replaced the Blue Devils as a top seed. So there should be no real quibbling there.
The argument that Syracuse shouldn’t be shipped out West and was treated worse than Duke doesn’t hold water for one reason: Syracuse lost its first
postseason game, in the Big East quarterfinals. Duke won the ACC tournament Case closed. It doesn’t much matter. You think Duke can’t lose to Louisville
or Cal in the second round? You think Syracuse can’t lose to Gonzaga or Florida State in the second round?
We’re not going to spend much time here on who got left out of the tournament, either. Illinois lost 14 games and had an RPI of 75, and these are damning numbers. Virginia Tech won 23 games but its nonconference schedule ranked 339th out of 347 schools. Sorry, Hokies.
I felt a little bad for one team Sunday when it was left out of the tournament field: Mississippi State. The Bulldogs had the SEC championship game against
top-seeded Kentucky won. MSU had outplayed Kentucky for the second time in a month. A couple of free throws, a secured rebound, the Bulldogs would
have been dancing. But they literally let Kentucky take the game with 0.1 of a second left Sunday, and if that wasn’t crushing enough, they then get left out of the tournament field. I’m not real sure that Florida, 1-8 against top 25 teams, had to be included over Mississippi State.
As for those who got in, the fun is going to be in figuring out which high seeds are going out of the tournament first, because they’re not all going to make a run, not this year. Northern Iowa, which won 28 games, will be a threat to Kansas in the second round. Maryland, with seniors Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes, would be a serious threat to Kansas . . . if the Terrapins can get past Houston and Michigan State, which would be a serious threat to Kansas. Georgetown would be a serious threat to Kansas, and certainly Ohio State would be, seeing as Evan Turner of the Buckeyes is the most versatile, most highly skilled player in college basketball this season. I can’t see Kansas, which I think is the best team in the field, going through all four of those teams in the Midwest Region.
This, without question, is the Group of Death.
Duke, of all the No. 1 seeds, has the toughest assignment simply because Louisville is a potential second-round opponent. Kentucky, which I was starting to doubt, has the easiest path to the Final Four. But if you’re looking for a No. 15 seed to score one of those “upset of the tournament” victories, I’ll give you one, in that same region: Todd Bozeman’s Morgan State team is going to concede nothing to West Virginia, which the selection committee was thinking of seeding No. 1 as late as Sunday afternoon.
You want some real upsets? How about Washington to beat Marquette? How about Missouri to beat Clemson? How about Saint Mary’s or Richmond —
take your pick — to beat Villanova in the second round, or Oklahoma State to beat Ohio State in the second round?
Trying to thoughtfully pick the winners in this 2010 NCAA tournament bracket is more difficult than I can remember . . . ever. The only No. 1 seed I’m going with is Kentucky, young as the Wildcats are, because I don’t have any real faith in Texas, in Wisconsin, in New Mexico and in West Virginia, the schools who figure to get in Kentucky’s way. In the South, give me Baylor. In the Midwest, give me Ohio State (after beating Georgetown). In the West, give me Kansas State (over Syracuse).
But before getting to the region finals, we’re going to see at least one No. 14 seed win, at least one No. 13 seed, at least one top seed pushed. If this is the
last 65-team field before the NCAA ruins the tournament and goes to 96 teams, perhaps it will be one to truly remember. Perhaps it will be so good, so entertaining and full of upsets and memorable performances that the powers-that-be in the college basketball will stop and say to themselves, “What in the
world could possibly be wrong with what we already have?”
The answer would be, of course, nothing. The tournament, at least what they gave us on Selection Sunday, looks like something we’re about to fall in love

Bill Conlin roots for his Phillies as hard as I root for my Yankees (we’re not in the press box now, where rooting isn’t allowed).
“So, we’re down to St. Patrick’s Day Eve and it’s time for the annual Phillies prediction. In 1993, I sensed a special set of intangibles in the crazies that GM Lee Thomas turned over to manager Jim Fregosi. Coming off a dead-last finish in 1992, picking the reinforced cast of baseball’s “Animal House” to win the pennant was more than a little risky; it was nuts. But I did and the Phillies jumped out to a huge lead, hung on for the East title, then took out the favored Braves in six. You know the rest.
So here we are again, with a team that is the biggest Phillies favorite to win the division since the playoff format began. They are a narrower fave to win a third straight pennant.
Charlie Manuel never held out during a six-season major league baseball career that spanned 432 plate appearances and yielded a .198 career batting average.
He held on like a remora to a shark’s underbelly.
The big redhead went to Japan and finally learned to hit. He became the most popular “Gaijin” to ever play there. He even challenged the sacred single-season home-run record of Sadaharu Oh.
By the time he climbed the minor league managing ladder and became the Cleveland Indians’ batting coach, then manager, he had become the Will Rogers of hitting, a folksy master of homespun malapropisms who never met a hitting man he didn’t like.
Ruben Amaro Jr. had a similar if more privileged baseball upbringing. He was born to baseball royalty. His grandfather, Santos Amaro, is enshrined in the
Cuban and Mexican halls of fame. Santos would have been a candidate for Cooperstown, as well, had his Cuban skin been a few shades lighter. Ruben’s
father of the same name had hands so soft during his major league career with the Phillies and Cardinals you would have entrusted him with catching an infant dropped from the sixth floor of a burning building.
Junior was an All-America outfielder at Stanford. He had been a ball-rat from Day 1. Ruben’s big-league career was a scuffle. He played eight seasons, five
of them here, batted .235 and learned his front-office skills from a variety of eminent professors in the College of Base Knocks, including Pat Gillick.
It is not easy to find a major league ballclub that has a GM and manager who held on instead of holding out. And rarer still to find one where two advisers to the GM, Charley Kerfeld and Dallas Green, are pups from that same loving-the-game litter.
Manuel . . . Amaro . . . Green . . . Kerfeld.
They are four reasons why the best team in Phillies history will duck the complacency bullet and should win as many as 98 games. The Phillies will win the National League East for the fourth straight year, their third consecutive pennant, and beat the Red Sox in a seven-game World Series.
Meanwhile, hold your breath on the knee Placido Polanco injured yesterday in Bradenton. Cody Ransom opened the season as the Yankees’ third baseman in 2009. Could the offseason insurance policy, who leads the Phils in homers this spring, make it two Opening Day starts in a row?
Last year I predicted the Red Sox would beat the Phillies in the Series. Not a bad mid-March call. Right division, wrong division winner. Boston’s pitching
should be exceptional, particularly if Daisuke Matsuzaka makes a full comeback. The Yankees have lost a lot of late-inning clutch work with the sayonara to Hideki Matsui, the World Series MVP, and the seeya to run-producer Johnny Damon.
I don’t see anybody in the NL East who can beat this team. The Braves have a deep rotation topped by righthanders Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson. But
Bobby Cox, about to embark on his goodbye tour of the NL, has a bullpen where the closer is Billy Wagner. And he has an outfield where nobody came
close to 100 RBI last year. That is why Jason Heyward, the best prospect in baseball, must open the season in right. And Chipper Jones must stay
ambulatory for at least 135 games. As always, the Marlins will be armed and dangerous. They have the smoke-and-mirrors market cornered. But there is
nothing illusory about the way they pound the ball in whatever their rented football stadium is now called.
The Mets remain MLB’s M*A*S*H unit. The Nationals will once again be the best team in Triple A. I think the Cardinals and Rockies will win the Central
and West.
What could turn the march to 98 victories into dead men walking? The failure of Brad Lidge to return as the closer he was in 2008. The absence of a lefty
relief specialist. A lineup-altering injury. In other words, a lot of the stuff the Phillies overcame in 2009, when almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong, from the poor first half by Jimmy Rollins to the slippage of Cole Hamels, the epidemic of blown saves by Lidge, the injuries to Raul Ibanez, the club’s first-half MVP. Brett Myers going down. The Park-Happ-Moyer confusion.
The schedule. There is a nine-game June stretch with six on the road against the Red Sox and Yankees followed by three at home against the Twins.
Interleague play ends with the Indians coming in for three and three in the Rogers Centre against the Blue Jays.
Other than that, ice the champagne, if there’s any left over after icing Placido’s knee.”


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